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Jewish students at the University of California, Berkeley, recently clashed over insensitive advertising for a Hillel-sponsored Valentine's Day event. The ad, which labeled a newlywed Orthodox couple as "scary," was originally posted on the Facebook social networking Web site, and generated a heated response.
Hillel was attempting to attract students to a "speed friending" event in honor of the holiday. It was based on speed dating, a structured matchmaking process in which one meets many members of the opposite sex in a short period of time.
The ad, a Hillel staff member explained, was meant to poke fun at more traditional kinds of matchmaking. But some were not amused.
One Orthodox Jew sarcastically referred to the ad in a Facebook post: "Gasp, he has a black hat and a beard; PERHAPS it's his way of clinging to Chasidic religious tradition?"
Another commented, "How dare you? How can you be so insensitive? Are Orthodox couples frightening? Does the couple appear at all threatening?"
A secular student responded that the intention wasn't to paint Orthodox Jews as "scary," but rather the prospect of marriage.
"The caption was intended to convey the message, 'Does the idea of getting married right away seem daunting to you? Don't worry; this is a more light-hearted take on speed dating, playing to the reality that many college students are nowhere near a marriage-minded state of life, just yet, but they still might have fun with this event,'" he wrote.
But that didn't convince the increasingly aggressive commentators.
"This is disgusting and shameful," one wrote. "And this is not the first time Berkeley Hillel has offended the more observant Jewish community."
He was referring to Holocaust Memorial Day, when Hillel held a dance party, and to Hillel's failure to hold Pessah Seders for the past two years.
Berkeley Hillel has officially apologized for all of these incidents, including the Facebook ad, but many don't feel that's enough.
"Hillel has made apologies again and again, but the same things keep happening," wrote one commentator. "So what do apologies matter if mistakes don't lead to improvement?"
Eventually, the administrator of Berkeley Hillel's Facebook page replaced the controversial image with a simple picture of the sun and clouds. This led some secular Jews to mock the earlier complaints.
"The new photo completely offends me. As a vampire, I'm deathly afraid of sunlight," one Berkeley student wrote.
"It's too bad these people are so humorless. Hillel shouldn't have to say sorry every time a Hasid gets pissed off," another added.
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